London Tales – Dick & the Fireman Crystal Palace Bowl 1976
In red below one of the little boys is indeed John’s Son and the other beside me is my son, Sam Smart. I found this article in a Box, so old! it is almost sepia, from the early days of the Camera! In fact, the hot summer of 1976. So many of those friends now gone from our Planet Earth. xxx
When people asked ‘Who’s Dick?’ ‘She is ..’ the now classic Monty Python line, ‘I am Dick!’ from us all’ would have been appropriate xxx
New Musical Express, August 7, 1976
A FIREMAN SHOULD NEVER BE WITHOUT HIS HOSEPIPE
TONY STEWART pulls out his and gets the undercover story on DICK AND THE FIREMEN.
DICK & THE FIREMEN ’76 incarnation l. to r. (are you ready for this?) Mel Collins, Neil Hubbard, Mike Patto, Alan Spenner, Carol Grimes, Bob Tench, Henry McCulloch, Tim Hinkley, Boz Burrell. Seated: Simon Kirke, John Halsey. The caption says the nippers are both Grimes Jrs., but they are John Halsey’s sons. As usual, click to see a larger image.
LITTLE GRIMES junior strolls onto the stage of the Crystal Palace Bowl just before noon on Saturday to grandly introduce the entertainment for the ninth Garden Party.
For those people in the crowd who’re slightly perplexed by the unlikely sight of this cocky nipper barely as tall as a bass drum, the situation becomes even more bewildering as Grimesy’s croaky soprano big deals the opening wheels: “Ladiz and gents, pleeze welcome Dick And The Firemen!”
What’s that? Dick?. . . And The Firemen?
Grinning inanely, stumbling over equipment and cables, a crew of musicians the strength of a football squad shamble doggedly on and begin to tune-up. A look of unabashed astonishment flashes over the faces of the kids squatting at the edge of the pond which separates them from the rostrum as The Firemen ribbon lay themselves across the breadth of the stage.
Practically everybody at the Bowl is asking the same question: Christ, is this crew just one almighty promotional wheeze? Or, can Dick And The Firemen (Ha!) be for real?
After all, upon the stand and just cutting into a brisk country flavoured number called “Pardon Me Sir” there’s two drummers, two bassists, two keyboard players, three guitarists, a sax player and a short chick singer wearing grey striped dungarees and an overcoat.
Eleven of them, and while they play the audience begin to inspect their faces more closely. A few smarties hesitantly try to identify individuals. Well, isn’t that, er, Bobby Tench?. . . and could that be Simon Kirke?. . . and Bad Company’s Boz Burrell? . . . Yeah, that’s definitely Kokomo’s Alan Spenner, and Neil Hubbard and f’Chrissakes Mel Collins . . . and yes, Tim Hinkley, Mike Patto, John Halsey, Carol Grimes and Henry McCulloch!
So what’s with the cream of British talent (perhaps) masquerading under firemen’s helmets with a mythical leader called Dick, and opening the crowds’ ears at the first Garden Party of the season?
Well, a closer look at their ecstatic faces as Patto wobbles up front on his silver boots and they go into a belting version of “Alcatraz” reveals some more of the story. They’re all bleary red eyed, the skin beneath shaded dark blue: signs of the physical wear and waste of three days of rehearsal, the last of which ended barely eight hours before they walked on stage.
They can’t go on meeting like this.
“’Ere! Where’s ‘is hosepipe?” Hinkley asks, pointing an accusing finger in my direction, and wearing a grimace of acute distaste. Never, it seems, be caught without the Firemen’s essential credential.
We’re in the Union Jack Boozer, just off Blackfriar’s Road on Friday evening – two days after bumping into Bob Tench in the same premises who suggested your writer should drop in on some sessions he was doing, and 16 hours before The Gig.
Seated around the table there’s Boz, Patto, John, Bob, Tim, and Benj and Mick who’re on loan from Zeppelin’s road crew. Blankly I stare back at Hinkley, who raises a pint pot of potent black liquid and declares, somewhat outraged: “That’s a hosepipe!”
Of course it is. Silly me.
“A large brandy, a barleywine and half a Guinness,” explains Tench for the benefit of the uninitiated. A more careful gaze around the table reveals that, yes, they’re all drinking the same seething concoction and daftly smiling contentedly.
Naturally, a fireman should never be without his hosepipe.
They’re juicing their tubes and bracing themselves for a marathon rehearsal at The Tunnel, a small practice studio underneath a railway arch.
The musicians might not be entirely the same, but this is probably (nobody’s entirely certain) the ninth time Dick And The Firemen have formed for a gig. They are, in effect, an occasional band put together by Mike Patto something like three years ago when Ollie Halsall split Patto. The group still had concert commitments and being the rock biz trouper that he is Mike was reluctant to let any promoters or audiences down.
“It was such a steam that when we came off after playing a gig in Sheffield we immediately said: Let’s do another one,” he explains.
Now, however, the organisation is left to Hinkley, Tench and a friend of theirs called Chris Holland.
“I used to organise them,” Mike acknowledges, “but my phone bill went up alarmingly. People, who’re playing in all sorts of different bands, were splitting the country and when they all came back to England we used to do this. It’s something to do and has a very warm feeling.
“It’s common denominator rock. There’s always someone who knows the right chord because there are so many people. It’s great. And we don’t just go on and play an hour of 12 bars, we do lots of tunes, y’know. It’s really a lovely feeling.”
Expanding on this Patto raises one hand above his head and the other below his chin, so as to frame his face, and continues: “That’s the signal. If you’re put on the spot that sign means: I haven’t signed anything and I have to leave at any minute.”
He shrugs; that’s fine by him because it’s the unspoken agreement of all the musicians. Steve Marriott, for instance, had hoped to play for this outing but unfortunately, his missus was taken ill and he couldn’t make it. Nobody complained.
Left: Mike Patto shakes a hosepipe.
IN REHEARSAL the same loose atmosphere applies.
It’s close to eleven when the full complement of Firemen eventually arrive. Bad Co’s Kirke made it shortly after we’d left the pub, shook hands with Halsey for the first time ever, and then occupied a set of zebra striped drums Zeppo’s John Bonham had loaned, perhaps not so kindly.
“Jesus Christ,” Kirke cursed, adjusting the fixtures and swapping snare drums, “I’ve played better dustbins.”
Then, just as the Firemen were returning to the Union Jack for a short break and the refreshment of Hosepipes, the Kokomos, Carol Grimes and McCulloch showed.
Once the rehearsal started in earnest they laid down the numbers with surprising ease.
“To me, it’s so natural to get all these people together because they’re all mates,” Tench explains. “There are two basses, two drums and three guitars and still there aren’t any flobbs. It’s just really together.
“This is it, you see: we have the same background, so once you get back into it it just comes automatically. It’s a funny little circle that comes together and the buzz is really good.
“Especially for me,” he adds. “Now that Streetwalkers have disbanded for two months it’s good to play without all those responsibilities and the heavies with Nicko and everything.”
The studio room is small, cluttered with chairs, amps, speakers, instruments and musicians. A small group of friends hang out, passing over lagers and lights, or perhaps a Turkish ciggy, maybe even a Lebanese.
Receiving a bottle, Boz, feeling healthier than when he heaved his Hosepipe into the gutter outside, looks indignant. “Are we getting pissed the slow way tonight?” he jokes. “Hasn’t anybody got a stiff one?”
Carol supplies a half bottle of whiskey.
The lighting’s dim, enhancing the hot damp thickness created by the fumes from the beer, tobacco (or something similar) and perspiration. Fags hang from the corners of mouths; musicians idly slump back against plastic chairs or speaker cabinets.
Along one wall Kirke and Halsey sit side by side following the song patterns and offering suitable drum parts. Opposite them the slight figure of Hinkley bops up and down behind the organ, issuing instructions and generally keeping some semblance of control. Between them, Patto, a tall, gangly gent, crouches low behind an electric piano, with Burrell continually springing around as be pumps out thick bass sequences.
On the opposite wall Tench, his guitar loosely held across his lap, sits on a guitar box, and by his side, Hubbard adopts an almost identical position. Spenner stands towering over McCulloch, who silently sits in a chair, thoughtfully working a few of his particularly special jazz phrasings into the songs.
Almost inconsequently phrases emerge as the musicians improvise, then as the others grin in recognition of a sequence they, in turn, charge the structures with a spontaneous exciting confidence.
Carol dodges around making vocal suggestions, while Collins stands in a dark corner blowing out some excellent tenor or soprano sax lines which invariably match the mood of a song in an instant.
And if they’ll excuse the expression, they all get on like a house on fire. Patto handles three vocals and Bob, Boz, Alan, Henry, John, Tim and Carol all take a turn on one each, varying in style in the same way as their present bands do.
By two on Saturday morning the songs have been moulded into some kind of disciplined structure and all that remains is to run-thru the set one final time.
THIS TIME around the Firemen have a special reason for making sure the gig is as right as it can be.
When, two weeks ago Tench, Hinkley and Halsey played a couple of gigs at the Nashville and Dingwalls with a bassist called Andy and former Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, they thought it would be a good idea to briefly reform Dick and the boys not only because most of the musicians would be in the country, but because Patto needed an up: doctors in America had recently diagnosed he had cancer.
“It’s done him the world of good just to be out with the lads and playing,” says Tench. “He’s a really strong geezer, mentally.”
Mike himself quite readily discusses his health and confesses to having become something of a party bore by insisting on discussing his recent operation.
While on tour with Boxer in the States he went into an LA hospital to have stomach X-rays and it was then discovered he had a tumour in his chest and throat. They operated on his throat and now he’s undergoing radiation treatment for his chest tumour. This’ll be his first gig for two months and his last for the same amount of time.
But he’s far from down.
“I’d never been in a hospital,” he explains quite cheerfully, “but it was at the point where they could save me, so I’m not sad. It’s great when they can do something for me because, well, I was expecting the worst.
“The hospital,” he confides in hushed, confidential tones, “don’t know I’m doing this gig. I was scared to tell ‘em. I’m not supposed to get too leary. You do get sick with radiation treatment, but after two weeks of it I’m still cool and they said: Enjoy yourself because you will get ill.
“So I’ve spent three nights rehearsing and just having a really good time and it’s relaxed me quite a bit. Because . . . like . . . I’m happy to be walking about. After what I was expecting to hear I’m glad to be alive.”
He gives you a wide grin.
It’s this determined characteristic which makes people admire him as a person as well as a musician. It’s why Simon and Boz flew in from France after working an all-night session on a new Bad Company album; it’s why the Kokos came straight from their own recording sessions to rehearse; and why Carol and Henry found time out from the London Boogie Band.
And this enthusiasm and respect is channelled into the numbers so that by 4 am the ragged edges are loosely tied together and a rough running order made. With only eight hours to go before the concert.
HALF WAY through their Garden Party set the audience have stopped worrying about who’s who in Dick And The Firemen and are content to just be entertained.
That these eleven musicians could pull together an act as adventurously diverse as this in three days must surely be the surprise of the Event. More than that it illustrates that British musicians can, when of a mind, still improvise and blow and produce some quite excellent results.
They perform four of Patto’s own songs: “Pardon Me Sir”, “Save Me”, “Why Pick On Me” and “Get Up And Do It”. Mike handles the vocals well and even manages to dig deep into the lyric line of “Alcatraz” before the set is over.
After his, and then Tench’s version of Bland’s “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City” and Carol’s reading of “Must Have That Man”, it mattered little that Tim, Spenner and Boz were slightly shaky while singing “Nadine”, “New Morning” and “Travelling Shoes” respectively.
Although you may have anticipated some major goofs musically they all appear to be remarkably together, allowing McCulloch elbow room to spin off some excellent guitar work. There’s even a point when their confidence is such that Mitch Mitchell takes over Halsey’s stool and thunders naturally along with the rhythm section.
To say that Dick And The Firemen’s better moments (of which there are many) equal Cocker’s Mad Dogs would still be something of an understatement.
And the proof comes when they’re offstage back in their tent, and Harvey Goldsmith moots the possibility of a mini-tour for September. Patto, predictably, seems the most enthusiastic for the project.
But the final touch to the day is to come when the Firemen are all back on their band coach and the gig fee is presented to Mike.
“Well,” Hinkley says, “he needs a bit of a holiday.”
Nitpicking: The kids that Tony thinks belong to Carol Grimes actually are John Halsey’s sons. Mike’s song is “Get Up and Dig It”, not “Get Up and Do It”. WRONG
Note: Dick and the Firemen was actually only one act at the Crystal Palace Bowl show. Some of the other acts included The Chieftains, Eric Clapton, and Freddie King, with guests Larry Coryell and Ron Wood. Photos by Pennie Smith.